deep appreciations

Janet Jackson’s All for You Was a Reawakening

All for You captures the whole spectrum of relationships — the romance, the dating, the sex, the heartbreak — but evades one of the incessant pitfalls of this kind of fun-love pop music: frivolity. Photo: Pop Archive/YouTube

In the spring of 2001, Janet Jackson released her seventh studio album, All for You, following a four-year gap since her previous offering, The Velvet Rope. That album had exhibited the artist’s introspection on sexuality and self-worth — alongside more precarious themes of domestic violence and depression. All For You, though, was Jackson’s reclamation of an eroticism without trauma, one that instead prioritized passion, romance, enthusiasm, and ease.

The video for the album’s lead single, its title track, released the month prior, opens with a background of a brightly colored, two-dimensional city with a train riding through it. A zoom-in reveals Jackson as one of its passengers, checking out a guy across the aisle. She then quickly moves between a fictional subway, a beachfront space, and a nightclub, leading seven backup dancers in dance breaks, as she’s done her whole career; she and her all-women crew are styled in early-2000s low-rise jeans, crop tops, and chunky highlights. It’s fun, upbeat, and subtly amorous. The song characterizes the anticipation, perhaps, the thrill of flirting with someone who has caught your eye, from the dance floor. The pull, push, and possibilities of a forthcoming chase begin; a gratifying sensation on its own, whatever the outcome. But “All for You,” as a single, also characterized Jackson’s state of mind as she let the world know that she was single and ready and willing to try for a lighter kind of love, one more time. She sings in the chorus:

“It’s all for you 
If you really need it
It’s all for you if you make a move
It’s all for you” 

When the album arrived on April 24, 2001, Jackson, then 34, had recently separated from her husband René Elizondo Jr., who’d co-written and directed many of her music videos (“That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Together Again”). The news of their split came with intense media scrutiny, as he’d exposed their secret nine-year marriage, her second at the time. (She previously had a brief marriage to R&B singer James DeBarge in 1984, which was annulled a little after a year.) Stemming from her very public early-childhood family fame, Jackson has always attempted privacy in her personal life. But her music has long served as an insightful documentation of her romantic and sexual trials and triumphs. All for You makes no exception.

While the album is an amalgamation of melodies and arrangements borrowed from funk, disco, and rock — including a sampling of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” which was rerecorded, or more accurately, reimagined with new lyrics into “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)” — Jackson maintains her signature slow R&B sound, blended with a buoyant pop. It’s a project not easily replicated well, although Mariah Carey’s own post-divorce stunner Butterfly, which preceded it, certainly compares. The combination of Jackson’s usual co-producers, the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, alongside hip-hop producer and rapper Rockwilder (known for his work with Jay-Z, Method Man, Redman, and more), gives All for You its additional inventiveness, while still preserving the soul-dance-pop qualities that had already established Jackson as both an R&B and pop Hall of Famer by the time of the album’s release. (And well before the Rock Hall inducted her into its own canon.)

Earning mostly positive reviews, the album did well by standard industry measures. Rolling Stone called it “as fresh, familiar, and appealing as you’ve come to expect from Jackson, and that’s no small achievement.” Like her previous four albums, All for You topped the Billboard 200 in its debut and was ultimately certified double platinum in the United States. It received three Grammy nominations, including Best Dance Recording for “All for You” — which it won — as well as Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the lyrically innocuous and melodically folk-pop single, “Someone to Call My Lover.” Aligned with the album’s release, Jackson was even made the premier recipient of MTV’s Icon tribute, to honor both her continued contributions to music and pop culture and her history. 

Perhaps the least extolling, persistent strike against All for You is that it was devoid of any intentional socially conscious commentary, or that the album was not as conceptually innovative as her other work before it; by then, she’d long centered sexual expressiveness in her art. Slant Magazine wrote, “In an attempt to make fun and cheery pop music, Janet & Co. have completely abandoned introspection and relevance …” But a conscious inclusion for inclusion’s sake would have misrepresented the project, distorting its intention and messaging. And while the lack of novelty in concept is a valid note, the fusion of Rockwilder’s production — the first time Jackson had collaborated with anyone other than Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis since 1986’s Control — brought a cutting-edge musicality to the album that fell short in abstraction. In February that year, referring to the songs “Would You Mind” and “Trust a Try,” Jimmy Jam told MTV News, “We thought Rock was going to bring us a bunch of funky stuff, and all of a sudden he hit us with a ballad track. We were blown away.”

Despite the album’s acclaim and critique — and, in the context of Jackson’s vast discography, one that admittedly contains some of the most epochal hits and collections of the last four decades in music — All for You remains underpraised, if not entirely underrated. That isn’t the case just in its offering as a Jackson album measured against the sum total of her genre-bending work, but also as a pop-culture ode to ballads that transmit some of what pop music does best: the anatomy of fun love. Whether in its beginning, middle, or end, the experience of fun love must contain a layer of airiness: The romance, the dating, the sex, the heartbreak — it can be serious, but not all-consuming; sober but not solemn. All for You accomplishes capturing the whole spectrum but evades one of the incessant pitfalls of this kind of fun-love pop music: frivolity. The album is never that.

From the lead single to “Someone to Call My Lover,” Jackson is heralding love — and the desire for it. But it’s a love that is good for one night or seven days or a season, the sort of love that’s memorable for a moment in time and for which any wondering of its longevity is antithetical to the experience. Even in the dramatic symphonic-rock-hip-hop-pop fusion that is “Trust a Try” — which, as the crux of the album, many fans correctly contend should have been a single — with the influence of Rockwilder’s melding instrumentals palpable, the song boasts, arguably, Jackson’s most sonically meaningful and lyrical depth. Consummate to the theater of its melody and arrangement, the lyrics contains a plea:

“Gotta trust in me
And we will see true victory
We’ll love with ease
Baby please trust in me
It’ll be heavenly
But you must give trust a try”

Yet even in “Trust a Try,” there remains an element of playfulness because of the drama of it all. Her plea is for “love with ease,” reaffirming the artist’s commitment to a newly adopted carefree demeanor. The inclusion of the previous year’s single, “Doesn’t Really Matter” — the theme for the comedy Nutty Professor II: The Klumps that starred Jackson opposite Eddie Murphy as his love interest — also provides the album with a more fervent demonstration of substantial desire while avoiding the weight such desire can bring.

In the handful of the album’s 20 songs that conjure up love’s demise, including a nod to friendship’s end (“You Ain’t Right”), Jackson demonstrates the most melodrama, honoring the tragedy of the end while still displaying amusement and levity in her approach. In the gift that is “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You),” Simon’s repurpose of her “You’re So Vain” lyrics combined with Jackson’s breathiness makes the act of breaking up seem like it might feel just as good as getting together. (There’s an equally enjoyable remix featuring Missy Elliott, too.) The accompanying music video — set in a murky hotel where Jackson stalks her assumed ex with a baseball bat in hand, eating a spider, zombies summoned to her cause — advances a twilight that stands out from the rest of the album. It perhaps serves as a reminder that fun love turned sour is not free of retribution. But as Jackson displays it, scorn needn’t be free of seduction either; there can be playfulness in that pursuit.

Put together, 20 years on, All for You stands tall and firm in its musicality and meaning. When it was released, Jackson told the Los Angeles Times, “This album could have ended up exactly like The Velvet Rope because of what’s gone on in my life since then, like the divorce. But I believe we have choices and paths, and it’s about choosing the right path, the promising path.” The resolve carried through the album has an enduring pleasure to it, one that’s familiar with every listen as numerous seasons in life, romance, and weather recur. Of course it’s the marker of an icon to make albums that hold up or improve with age. What resonates most after two decades of listening to the album, though, is Jackson’s clear expressed desire for love to be measured by more than its intensity or sacrifice, or a pain-to-pleasure ratio. Instead, she offered the mainstream a message of romance and love absent of perfunctory satisfaction and yet content with transient bliss, if that is all it might be. All for You delivers a lasting intention: Fun love is good love and good fun.

Janet Jackson’s All for You Was a Reawakening